By now, most of us have been impacted in some way by Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). I worked in Boston last week where I met a fellow hotel guest in the elevator. Upon detecting an accent, I asked where he was from. He said, “I work in Hong Kong, but live in Italy…” immediately adding, “But I’ve been in the U.S. for two weeks. I am not patient zero!”
Given the current environment, I was reminded of a former boss and mentor, Mark Conklin, who, as general manager, led the JW Marriott Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak in 2003. Now retired, I reached out to Mark for advice on how hoteliers and others could address and potentially mitigate the negative effects of COVID-19 based on his unique experience. The following post summarizes his counsel.
In March of 2003, SARS emerged as a deadly disease that was highly transmittable with no clear medical understanding of its cause or how the disease was transmitted. The JW Marriott Hong Kong had been the market share leader in Hong Kong before the SARS outbreak caused occupancy to plummet to three percent. Local schools closed for more than six weeks. Shopping centers shuttered and the city became a virtual ghost town with little to no pedestrian or street traffic. Several guests during this time period displayed SARS symptoms and, with appropriate body suit to avoid risk of contagion, Mark took these guests to a local hospital. Hotel staff was all full-time associates (Marriott’s preferred term for employees) so difficult business decisions had to be made. Those decisions were made easier by aligning with the hotel’s core values that were consistent with those of Marriott International and supported by hotel ownership.
Think like an owner in the short-term
Earlier today I read a quote by the founder of GOJO Industries, the corporation behind Purell hand sanitizer and other products: “You too can do what needs to be done. Go, do what needs to be done.” Simple and sage advice that can be employed by owners and employees alike. The quote emphasizes taking action, displaying a sense of urgency, and taking initiative in the moment of choice. There are actions that you can take RIGHT NOW to address COVID-19 in the workplace:
- Mark updated hotel ownership and Marriott International headquarters in Bethesda, MD daily throughout the SARS crisis. The hotel maintained proactive daily communication with current hotel guests, future reservation holders, and associates.
- Associates were reminded about the importance of washing hands thoroughly and often, using hand sanitizer, and making a concerted effort not to touch their face.
- Unnecessary contact with others (e.g., embracing, handshaking, etc.) was discouraged.
- Hand sanitizer was made readily available to customers in high-visibility and high-traffic areas.
- There was an increase in the frequency of cleaning high-touch surfaces with disinfectant cleaning supplies such as handrails, countertops, door handles, elevators, public restrooms, health club equipment, etc.
- Awareness was heightened by revisiting these protocols daily with all associates.
- If an associate appeared to be suffering from flu-like symptoms, he/she would be asked to seek immediate medical attention and not return to work until free of symptoms.
- Similarly, guests who self-identified as feeling unwell were taken to a local medical facility to receive treatment. In these cases, increased sanitation procedures were used to thoroughly disinfect affected guest rooms.
Think like an owner in the long-term
As mentioned, all staff of the JW Marriott Hong Kong were full-time associates (as opposed to part-time, temporary, or contract associates). This dynamic presented Mark and his leadership team with a series of difficult long-term decisions. For instance, decisions needed to be made in response to decreased demand – and the resulting reductions in hotel occupancy, revenues, and associate labor hours (and compensation) linked to less demand. Mark’s mantra during this time was: “When your values are clear, your decisions are easy.”
- Mark and his leadership team strategically utilized vacation days and unpaid leave to mitigate the effects of the business downturn. Hotel leaders led by example to reduce the hardship felt by frontline associates. One leader worked four months without compensation in order to free up payroll funds to compensate frontline staff.
- The hotel offered zero-interest personal loans to associates who needed them.
- The hotel sent many associates, both hourly-paid and management staff, on various task force assignments to hotels in other geographical locations.
- The hotel scheduled a number of CapEx projects, including renovations, and utilized associates where possible to assist with the work.
Let your values guide you to do the right thing
Mark said that the SARS outbreak was the most stressful situation he had ever endured as the virus was highly contagious, life-threatening, and there was little knowledge, initially, about how it was transmitted. Death counts climbed daily, including medical professionals who were treating infected patients. The community was in tumult. Through it all, Mark and his leadership team held fast to the hotel’s core values including the Marriott corporate value first championed by its founder, J. Willard Marriott: “Take care of associates and they will take care of the customers.” As a result, the hotel weathered the SARS crisis and became stronger as a team. Other area hotels reacted to the outbreak by laying off employees and taking other drastic measures that buffered them in the short-term but had negative long-term implications. Over time, the actions of Mark and his leadership team throughout the crisis produced fruit: The JW Marriott Hong Kong being named “Best Employer in Hong Kong” by Aon Hewitt; the retention of loyal associates (more than 125 associates who had been employed at the hotel for at least 25 years); and increased guest satisfaction – as associate satisfaction and guest satisfaction are inextricably linked.
Mark concluded his comments by saying, “Tough times don’t last; tough people do.” We are clearly in a tumultuous time. Employees and customers alike are concerned and have questions. This is the time to revisit core values (e.g., communication, honesty, integrity, transparency, loyalty, compassion, commitment, creativity, initiative, and leadership) and allow them to guide your short- and long-term decisions.
Now, be safe and wash your hands.
Illustration by Aaron McKissen.